This blog post is part of PHR’s Tech & Human Rights Blog Series. The series is meant to highlight the intersection between technology and human rights, and examine the increasing role that technology can play in advancing human rights around the world.
*Names have been changed for security purposes.
Justin is the police officer in charge of sexual violence cases in Bunyakiri, a village surrounded by mountainous forests in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the conflict zones of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He holds his head in his hands and wonders how he will be able to uphold the law and secure justice for Ange, a 14-year-old girl.
Ange had been raped by her teacher several months earlier in retaliation for her parents’ delay in paying her school fees. While the government declared schools in the DRC free of charge in 2011, it has failed to allocate a budget, leaving teachers without regular pay and supplies to teach.
Ange didn’t say anything to anyone. But after several weeks, her stomach grew. She began to feel nauseous and dizzy, and she felt pain in her abdomen. She finally decided to tell her parents, who took her to a health center and then to the police station to see Justin. But it was late in the afternoon, and the police station closes at sundown in Bunyakiri, where there is no electricity. Ange would have to return the next day.
When Ange finally meets Justin, he listens closely as he writes a part of her statement on a piece of paper. While the police station usually lacks paper and other basic supplies, Justin had fortunately kept some paper and pens from a forensic training with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). With criminal proceedings hinging on the information he captures, Justin has to select the most important elements of Ange’s disclosures so that the essential narrative can fit on the few precious pieces of paper he has in his possession. Justin also confided in me that at night certain police officers who don’t know how to read will take pieces of paper from police reports found in station offices without doors or closets to use as toilet paper or to light makala, the local type of firewood. And with that, the police archives disappear, even though it is vital to preserve this documentation.
When brought in and questioned by the police, the teacher confessed. He had raped Ange, as well as other young girls who had remained silent so that they could continue to study. Justin sent a message to the prosecutor of the small town of Kalehe, 100 kilometers away from Bunyakiri. The prosecutor asked him to send the police reports as quickly as possible so that the teacher could be arrested. He also asked that all of the known victims receive medical exams so that he could integrate the standard medical certificates into the proceedings.
Justin asked the prosecutor how he would pay for the $40 taxi and armed guard needed to escort the teacher to Kalehe. He asked his district’s police chief how he would pay for the paper needed to record interviews with the other young victims who had been identified – or for the paper that the health center would need for the medical certificates.
Ultimately, Justin asked himself how he would possibly be able to bring the completed case to Kalehe in the requisite 10-day period before the prosecutor would be required by law to request that the rapist be freed and the public action be halted.
Justin and I talked often about these challenges. He called me in relation to Ange’s case, asking, “Mr. Georges, how do you do this in your country?” I answered him nervously, preferring to discuss the challenges of modern policing rather than the sophisticated and technologically-savvy working conditions that my European colleagues enjoy. Justin also asked me about the legal admissibility of digital evidence and its use in court. While there is no electricity in Bunyakiri, the internet does work with the aid of generators and solar batteries. It works quite well, in fact. If Justin could send the victims’ statements, pleadings, and medical certificates, as well as the police reports and photographs, directly to the prosecutor through a web-based system within the requisite 10-day period, he would not have to release the criminal. He would then have three months to transfer the accused to Kalehe. Justin explained to me that a web-based platform would be a simple, but essential, tool in the fight against sexual violence in the DRC.
We at PHR hope that our new mobile phone application, MediCapt, will be this tool for Justin and for police officers all over the DRC who are doing their best to secure justice for victims of sexual violence. MediCapt digitizes the collection and documentation of sexual violence evidence and preserves it for court prosecutions. The app can be used to compile medical evidence, photograph survivors’ injuries, and securely transmit the data to authorities engaged in prosecuting and seeking accountability for such crimes. An upgraded version of MediCapt was piloted in the DRC in early 2015, and we hope to officially launch it later this year.
Though I agree with Justin that a system such as MediCapt would be a vast improvement over the current paper-based system mainly because evidence can be transmitted quickly from one sector to the next, having worked in the DRC for the last five years, I know that there are many other challenges that will need to addressed before sexual violence survivors receive even a modicum of justice. For example, even if Justin is able to meet all of the legal requirements to keep an alleged perpetrator behind bars, the prison system itself is grossly under-resourced. Some prisons in eastern DRC lack the resources for proper security and care for inmates – there are even some reported cases where the sexual violence survivor’s family has to bring food to the prison for the perpetrator in order for the perpetrator to be kept behind bars. Thus, MediCapt, while a huge improvement, will not be a panacea for all of the issues plaguing the Congolese justice system.
I think often of Justin, and of all the police officers in similar situations, who strive to help their communities, but struggle to do so for lack of paper and pens or because legal deadlines are counted in days in a country that has forever been subjected to the rhythm of the rainy seasons. Despite their best efforts, they are forced all too often to release perpetrators from custody and watch as their communities fracture. They are losing confidence in their institutions, even though a little electricity and a digital network could be enough to prosecute those who carry out such heinous acts of sexual violence, achieve justice for survivors, and reassure these dedicated officers that their work is not all for naught.
Georges Kuzma, a French national, spent the last two years as a Police and Justice Expert Consultant with Physicians for Human Rights’ Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones in Bukavu, DRC, where he has been working for the past five years.